Last night's Futurama took us on an incredible tour of Earth's entire history and revealed what the 31st century would look like without Fry around. Equal parts touching, hilarious, thoughtful, and flat-out bonkers, this episode was everything Futurama should be.
Perhaps because it does it so sparingly, Futurama has an amazing track record with time travel stories. After the show intentionally avoided the trope for three long seasons, "Roswell That Ends Well" ended up being the show's finest half hour. Although it's up against decidedly less stiff competition, the insanely twisty time travel caper "Bender's Big Score" is easily the best of the four DVD movies, and the one that comes closest to recapturing the madcap energy of the old series.
And then there's "The Late Philip J. Fry." I'm a big fan of some of this season's episodes - "Rebirth", "Proposition Infinity", and "Lethal Inspection" are all really strong entries in new Futurama - but this episode was working on a whole other level. It was, as Elzar himself would put it, knocked up a notch from previous episodes of new Futurama (and then he'd charge me $50 for using his catchphrase).
It combined the giddily crazy ideas of "The Duh Vinci Code", the trippy plot contortions of "Rebirth", and the emotional resonance of "Lethal Inspection" into this season's strongest effort thus far, throwing in the parallel storytelling of "Luck of the Fryrish" and cosmic scope of "Godfellas" for good measure. That's a pretty damn good formula, all things considered. So let's consider those first three elements from this season's earlier episodes one at a time.
It's hard to do much more than just give a laundry list of all the amazing time periods Fry, Bender, and the Professor visit. The Futurama writers are clearly trying to check off every time travel trope they hadn't yet done (thus the Professor's wonderfully fast Hitler assassination), and it's great to see references to luminaries of the time travel sub-genre, namely the Terminator movies, H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, and The Planet of the Apes (or at least its more time-related aspects).
But the homages are just the start of the fun - how can you honestly improve on a world where giraffes have enslaved humanity and have eaten all the leaves? To a certain extent, I think the original Futurama pretty much dealt with all the major hard science fiction tropes and conventions from books, TV, and movies (with the still notable omission of Doctor Who), and the new Futurama has pretty much been left to come up with newer, crazier science fiction ideas.
Thus we get a time period where knights on ostriches use rusty swords to perform proctology exams on robots. I guess that might sound like not much more than a wacky science fiction mad-lib, but right now I am still very much digging these out there ideas, particularly when set to a parody of "In the Year 2525." And if nothing else, that fast-forward through the entire history of the universe was one of the most amazing sequences Futurama has ever done, right up there with the universal zoom in "Godfellas."
Part of the huge fun of "The Late Philip J. Fry" was seeing the future's future. It was genuinely shocking to see the vastly changed Planet Express headquarters of the years 3030 and 3050, with the crew members left behind slowly aging and decaying before our eyes. There was a hellish dimension to this alternate future - I can deal with old robot Amy and Hermes's head on a pogo stick, but Leela married to Cubert!? - but it was still great just to see that these characters will eventually grow old and live full, long lives, even if this is the only time we get a glimpse of what their futures might entail.
And then Fry's birthday card fluttered into 3050. Futurama has always pulled off fiendishly complex plots with panache, and this was mere child's play compared to some of the narrative trickery we've seen before. And yet it was the sort of simple twist that tied the two plot lines together in a way that made pretty much perfect sense, and the aged Leela's pained reaction to the card packed a genuine emotional wallop, even though I knew some sort of reset was coming and this timeline would be erased.
For in the end, this episode was at its heart all about Fry and Leela. I give up on trying to puzzle out what their relationship is in anything but the most general terms. Clearly, the two characters have been through enough in the last ten years to know they share something special, but both are too ill-equipped (Fry intellectually and Leela emotionally) to express their feelings properly until one of them is dead or they're separated by billions of years. Talk about saving up all the romance for that one big grand gesture.
I feel fairly confident saying that this is the first and only time geological deposition has played a major part in a love story, but it worked brilliantly in providing the other half of Fry and Leela's last messages to each other. This is still a show that likes to put some irreverence into its most tender moments, with Bender nonchalantly burying their temporal duplicates' bodies right beneath Fry and Leela, but the takeaway should be clear. Whatever Fry and Leela technically are as a couple in the here and now, they're ultimately two characters who won't even let untold eons of history keep them apart. "The Late Philip J. Fry" tells us pretty much everything we need to know about who these two are.